‘Geneva 3’ faces hurdles, conflicting agendas

Friday 22/01/2016
US Secretary of State John Kerry (L), and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov

DAMASCUS - Despite disparate posi­tions and complex is­sues taken to the nego­tiating table, the United States, Russia and other major powers are determined to convene Syria peace talks in Gene­va on January 25th.
If they get off the ground, as the major powers insist, the talks would mark a breakthrough in Syria’s bloody civil strife, which enters its sixth year on March 17.
Widely referred to as “Geneva 3”, the gathering comes as diplomatic bickering intensified between Saudi Arabia and Iran, two regional pow­erhouses and key players in Syria.
Iran is a strong ally of Syrian Presi­dent Bashar Assad, who Riyadh wants deposed before negotiations start. Saudi Arabia supports oppo­sition groups against Assad, who is also backed by Russian Presi­dent Vladimir Putin. He dispatched troops and military gear to rid Syria of Islamic State (ISIS) and other mili­tants seeking to topple Assad.
Saudi Arabia cut diplomatic ties with Iran in early January after mobs, reacting to the execution of a Shia cleric, attacked the kingdom’s embassy in Tehran. Riyadh’s rela­tions have traditionally been bumpy with Tehran, which it accuses of spreading influence and rival Shia brand of Islam in a region long dom­inated by Sunni Muslim govern­ments.
Syrian rebel groups insist they would not take part in the peace talks unless humanitarian codi­cils in the latest UN resolution on the conflict are implemented. The groups, which include the powerful Islam Army, mentioned articles of the resolution that call for humani­tarian access to all in need and the cessation of attacks on civilians.
The opposition also wants the Da­mascus government to take good­will steps, such as a prisoner release, before negotiations.
Another sticking point is the list of groups invited to attend versus a list of “terrorist” organisations ex­cluded from the meeting.
Jordan, delegated by the United States, United Nations and Russia, prepared an invitation list. How­ever, a Jordanian government offi­cial with access to the negotiations said the original document was be­ing expanded slightly to incorporate groups Saudi Arabia insisted be pre­sent, such as Ahrar al-Sham, which Washington considers a terror or­ganisation.
The official spoke to The Arab Weekly on condition that he is not identified further.
UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura and his team “will con­tinue working hard to issue the invi­tations in order to ensure maximum inclusivity, with a view to starting the intra-Syrian Geneva Talks on 25 January”, de Mistura’s office said in a statement.
Assistant US Secretary of State Anne Patterson said Washington and Moscow were working “very as­siduously” on defining the terrorist groups. They have discussed “the terrorism issue in the whole Syria- Iraq corridor” and military and in­telligence contacts were continuing.
Patterson said talks were on track for January 25th and pointed out that she had had a “good con­versation” with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov and senior officials from Britain, China and France.
The UN Security Council unani­mously approved a resolution on December 18th endorsing an in­ternational Syria peace process. It gave UN blessing to a plan negoti­ated by world powers in Vienna that calls for a ceasefire, talks be­tween the Syrian government and opposition and a two-year timeline to create a unity government and have elections.
Syria is ready to take part in peace talks in Geneva and hopes that the dialogue will help it form a national unity government, Syr­ian Foreign Minister Walid al- Moualem said in a January 18th statement.
Saudi Arabia hosted a confer­ence in December in an attempt to create an opposition bloc. Meet­ing participants agreed to set up a 34-member secretariat to super­vise peace talks and that commit­tee would select an opposition ne­gotiating team.
The Syrian civil war was sparked by a government crackdown on pro-democracy activists in peace­ful demonstrations in March 2011, which later developed into a bloody civil war. ISIS militants used the chaos to seize territory in Syria and Iraq.
More than 250,000 people have been killed and tens of thousands wounded or missing and about 4.3 million Syrians have fled the country.